He Plays Father Christmas – and Safeguards History
(Editor's Note: This article about "Father Christmas" originally published in the December, 2017 issue of Camp magazine. We are posting it again for this year's Christmas holiday.)
At this time of year, Larry Gilbert, who has a long, gray beard, is busy in his holiday role of Father Christmas. This will be his third year in that role.
“I did a year before that as the Coca-Cola Santa Claus,” he said, “and I hated it.”
He happened upon this role accidentally.
“I was in Costco one day, and they were selling a decoration of a statue of a Father Christmas. And I stood and looked at it and I took a picture of it.”
He said he went home, called a friend in local theater who sews costumes, and asked her to duplicate the costume for him.
Now he appears in costume at parties, both for adults and for children; retail stores; nursing homes; and holiday events.
Back a few years, anyone who ever needed the perfect funny or sexy card knew THE place in Kansas City for the best cards was Larry’s Cards & Gifts, owned by Gilbert. (It later reopened as Out There.) Besides cards, the store sold videos, T-shirts, rainbow flags, decals, books, CDs and many more items for the LGBTQ community.
And it was, most of all, an outpost where people could get information on the local community.
He founded the original store in April 1989 at 43rd and Main Streets, next to the Levy bar. It was called Larry’s Gifts & Cards, and it later reversed the “Gifts” and “Cards” in the name.
“It was a small space. I had never been in business by myself before, and the lease was only for one year,” he said. “If it worked, I could continue, or move, or whatever.”
At the end of the lease, he said, he was forced to move when the building’s owner faced foreclosure, so he and other tenants moved to 39th and Main Streets.
Then that landlord lost the space, and his new landlord was James B. Nutter.
“He didn’t like my store. So he evicted me. And so I was struggling to find a place,” he said.
With the help of referrals from then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver’s office, political consultant Steve Glorioso told him: “I’ve got a building in Westport, and you’re more than welcome to move there.” That store was at 211 Main St. He ultimately found his most successful location at 205 Westport, where he stayed for many years.
“At one point when I was at that location,” Gilbert said, “Steve decided he wanted to sell the building and he wanted me to buy the building. I said that is more than what I want to do. Luckily, he sold it to a woman who was a wonderful landlord and she was so happy that I was there.”
After she passed away, her sons took over the building and things changed, so he sold the business and the name of the store to two men. They renamed the store “In the Life” and changed much of the merchandise.
“Their ownership was problematic,” Gilbert said. “It was a short period that I was out. Things that I wanted to do were not falling into place. People were calling me and begging me to open the store again. Even the landlord was calling me and saying, ‘I’ll kick them out, please come back.’
“Eventually they moved out, and the LGBT Community Center took over the space. And that wasn’t working out. So one day he called me and said, ‘What would it take for you to come back?’”
In a moment of weakness, he said, he agreed to return.
He had to remodel the space after it had gone through so many changes. Because he had sold the name of the store to the former owners, he could not use “Larry’s Cards & Gifts,” so the new name of the store became “Out There.” He shut the business down for the last time in August 2009.
Gilbert said the best part of the store was the people. Although the store was a fixture in the LGBT community, Gilbert said, “I had a lot of straight customers, they liked to buy the same merchandise. I had regular customers that didn’t live in Kansas City. I had one that lived in South Africa that would come back one time a year to buy at the store.”
He said he had another annual customer from San Francisco. Gilbert said that he was sometimes recognized from his Kansas City store while when he was on the streets of San Francisco and Amsterdam.
Gilbert briefly had a second location of his store in Lawrence, Kansas, but it didn’t work out. He thinks it was because people were more closeted at that time. People would drive from Lawrence to his Kansas City store, he said, because they didn’t want their cars to be seen parked outside the Lawrence store.
Before opening his card and gift shop, Gilbert worked for Southwestern Bell as an engineer. “At one point, I was working my way up the corporate ladder,” he said.
Gilbert grew up in a small town in Kansas, then lived in Topeka after serving in the Navy.
“After a while of living in Topeka, I had to get out of there,” he said. “I had to make a decision to move to Kansas City or someplace else. So I tried Dallas. It was fine, I had no problems there, but I didn’t like living in Dallas. So my goal was to move back up here, and I wanted to live in Lawrence and open a business. Nothing worked out to find a location in Lawrence, so I said, ‘I’ll give Kansas City one day,’ and everything fell into place immediately.”
Gilbert said the store in Westport was like a beacon for many people, including out-of-towners.
“I had the pink triangle in the window, and that was a clue to many of them,” he said. “It was like we were a community center. That was fun.”
He said that the store served as an information center for many people. “That’s why I liked it when the community center was above us, so I could refer them upstairs.”
As he looks back, Gilbert feels strongly about preserving Kansas City’s LGBT history, especially because he feels that some history, as he knows it, is still unrecorded or recorded incorrectly. He pointed out an error in a local LGBT history book.
“There’s another entry in here that says I bought out Phoenix books and changed the name to Larry’s. I had nothing to do with their business,” he said. “We were totally independent and competition” for each other.
“I think that history is being lost. The new generation doesn’t know that history, and a lot of them, until you sit them down and explain it to them, they say ‘Oh really, I thought it was the way it is now all the time.’”
“It’s not perfect now, but it’s a lot better than it was.”
Gilbert reflected on how we lost so much of an entire generation of gay men to the AIDS crisis.
“I remember back before AIDS, a friend of mine said, ‘you know, I feel sorry for the old people today because when we’re old, there will be a hell of a lot more of us.’ Then AIDS comes and kills us all off.”
During the AIDS crisis, Gilbert said, the store played a role in helping groups such as Condom Crusaders, ACT UP and others who were fighting to slow the spread of the disease.
“We had posters up, and when the money was available, we would help support different groups.”
He said that the store did a lot of in-kind work to help groups spread news and support at that time.
When people who know he lived in Dallas at one time ask him whether he ever goes back and sees his friends, Gilbert says, “I tell them, ‘They’re all dead.’ I only have one friend left in Dallas, and she’s a lesbian.”
Gilbert has been married to his partner, Brian, for the last year. Part of their compatibility, he said, is that Gilbert is more attracted to younger men and Brian, who is 27 years younger, is more attracted to older men. They’ve been together for 20 years.
“I met him in the store,” said Gilbert, and for many years Brian worked there with him.
These days, Gilbert helps a friend with a small regional newspaper, the Fairview Enterprise in Fairview, Kansas.
“It’s been in existence since 1888,” he said. “It’s my hometown paper.”
The paper was struggling and a new owner stepped in to buy it, and Gilbert works as an editor.
“We didn’t want to see the paper go away, so we stepped in to help,” he said. “I do the advertising and the subscriptions, and I write articles and all that kind of stuff.”
He’s also been assisting Brian’s mother with her grain and feed store in DeSoto, Kansas, and enjoying his hobbies of genealogy and photography – both of which can record history for the ages.